Western Loop, Days 11-12: Kansas Folk Art

Trip Dates: June 16-18, 2019 | Photo Album

Our return home would be through Kansas. Four years earlier, we had enjoyed seeing Monument Rocks, chalk formations in the middle of nowhere (aka west central Kansas) before driving south and east to return via Dodge City and Wichita. This time we would visit some oddball attractions a few miles off I-70: the Fick Fossil Museum in Oakley and some fun and bizarre folk art venues in Lucas.

One day was just a haul east and south from Denver, CO to Colby, KS. We returned to Oscar’s Bar and Grille for lunch in Limon, surrounded by portraits of movie stars from yesteryear. The kitsch was a welcome relief for me from the monotonous flat landscape of eastern Colorado and Kansas. But Wendy loves the lack of stimulation when traveling through the great plains. She was inspired by our sojourn to paint her own reminder of the landscape.

Wendy’s Kansas landscape

We spent the night at a Sleep Inn in Colby, rising the next morning to drive a few miles to Oakley.

Buffalo Bill outside Oakley, KS

Oakley has erected an outsized statue of Buffalo Bill shooting a buffalo to commemorate the following:

In 1868 William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill”, made his living as a contract buffalo hunter feeding the crews laying track across Kansas for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.  At the same time William Comstock, who was also sometimes called “Buffalo Bill” hunted buffalo to provide meat to feed the soldiers at Fort Wallace.  To determine who would be the real “Buffalo Bill” a wager was made and a contest was staged west of Oakley in Logan County, Kansas.  The contest was to see which hunter could harvest the most buffalo in one day.  William F. Cody won the contest 69 to 46.  By the turn of the 20th Century, with his Wild West Show, “Buffalo Bill” Cody had become one of the most recognized and famous persons in the entire world.  Cody helped shape the world’s image of the American West.

A monument to slaughter…I suppose you can derive your own meanings from it.

Fick Fossil Folk Art

But we weren’t interested in Buffalo Bill; we were there to see fossil folk art at the Fick Fossil Museum at the town’s library. It had been on our radar since our visit to Monument Rocks, having noted that the museum had fossils from that area.

Back in 1964, Vi Fick looked down at the ground on her ranch near Monument Rocks and noticed 72 shark teeth, deposited millions of years earlier in what was an inland seaway in the Cretaceous period. She and her husband, Earnest, borrowed a beginner’s fossil book from their nephew, and thus began a quest. Vi and Earnest collected 11,000 fossilized sharks’ teeth on their land, along with many vertebrae, fish jaws, shells, and crinoids.

Eagle formed of shark teeth

I’ll admit I am even less interested in shark teeth than in Buffalo Bill. It is what Vi did with the teeth and other fossils that lured us to Oakley. She started combining them with melted wax, papier-mâché, oil paint, and glue to create bizarre folk art. She made eagles, American flags, the Presidential Seal, the State Seal of Kansas, and more. One of the museum curators once commented, “They didn’t have cable back then.” Ha! How delightful that this quirky art was preserved for us to enjoy.

The docent during our visit was a Mennonite lady who pointed out that the museum had a number of beautiful minerals, a sod house, a fire truck, and some large fossils. And yes, their 15-foot Xiphactinus audax is the world’s oldest known mosasaur fossil.

Xiphactinus audax

But as I gazed at the beautiful minerals in their display cases or pondered a turtle skull, my eyes inevitably wandered to linger on paintings of trees where tiny shells formed autumn leaves and to contemplate eagles adorned with feathers of shark dentin.

The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas

Our next stop a few hours deeper into central Kansas proved even more entertaining. We diverted from I-70 north on highway 232 past Wilson Lake to Lucas, a town of less than 400 which happens to be home of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

Sam Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran who went on to teach school for five years in Illinois. I can only imagine what his teaching was like given his eccentric creations later in life. He married Frances Barlow Journey, a widow of considerable means, and took up farming, moving to Kansas in 1888. In 1905 he retired and moved into Lucas, buying a quarter block. He constructed a log home, but his logs were made of postrock limestone he had quarried nearby in long narrow lengths up to twenty feet long. The stone was then laid up with dovetailed corners in the manner of a log cabin.

Dinsmoor’s Stone Log Cabin

Once he completed his “cabin home“, Sam set about, at age 66, creating intertwining concrete sculptures. He erected scaffolding and worked alone, save for an assistant who mixed cement. Over a couple of decades, supported in part by a clerical error that resulted in him receiving an extra monthly government pension check, he covered steel reinforcements with chicken wire and 113 tons of cement to form over 150 statues supported by 29 cement trees, standing up to 40 feet high.

Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden

On the west side Dinsmoor depicted his personal understanding of the Bible. I purchased a copy of the small guide book Dinsmoor published entitled Pictorial History of the Cabin Home in Garden of Eden. It is a hoot. Of his Garden of Eden sign over the grape arbor, he wrote, “I could hear so many, as they go by, sing out, ‘What is this?’ so I put this thing up. Now they can read it, stop or go on, just as they please.” I labeled a photo with some of his explanations about Adam & Eve, the angel of the tree of life and all-seeing eye, Cain & Abel, slain Abel, and fleeing Cain.

Garden of Eden explained by its builder

The north side of the property tells the story of modern civilization, featuring his hatred of trusts and their chartered rights. I enjoyed his sequential tableau of a girl after a soldier, who is after an Indian, who is after a dog, which is after a fox after a bird after a worm eating a leaf. Dinsmoor said, “This shows how one animal is after another down to the leaf.”

North side of Dinsmoor’s creation

I fashioned a photo identifying his north side sculptures and their intended meanings from his guidebook, and we got close-ups of a trust monster, how Liberty and the ballot could destroy the trusts, and how labor is crucified by grafters led by lawyers, doctors, preachers, and bankers, who “eat cake by the sweat of the other fellow’s face. The Lawyer interprets the law. The Doctor has his knife and saw ready to carve up the bones. The Preacher is saying to this poor fellow crucified, ‘Never mind your suffering here, secure home in heaven for A-l-l E-t-e-r-n-i-t-y and you’ll be all right.’ This is the stuff he is giving Labor for his cake. He knows nothing about Eternity and that he does know if he knows anything. What fools we be to sweat to give the other fellow cake. The Banker has the money, takes the interest and breaks up more people than any other class.”

Crucified labor

In the spring of 1917 the first Mrs. Dinsmoor died. Left alone while immersed in the construction of the Garden, Dinsmoor hired a young Czechoslovakian woman named Emilie Brozek as a housekeeper. When Emilie was twenty years old she married the 81-year-old Dinsmoor, and the marriage produced two children. In his guidebook, he proudly included a photo of their daughter, Emily Jane, who grew up to become a music teacher and passed in 2013, with a portion of her ashes now inside the Dinsmoor Family Mausoleum at the Garden of Eden.

Sam was interred in that large stone log cabin mausoleum in a coffin with a plate glass lid. His will directed that none but his widow, descendants, and their husbands and wives should go in to see him for less than $1.00. He promised everyone that came in to see him that if he saw them drop a dollar in the hand of the “flunky” (who oversaw the mausoleum), he would give them a smile. It looked more like a grimace to me on his decayed corpse. Before his death, he posed inside and outside his coffin in a double-exposed photograph he sold on postcards.

Dinsmoor Mausoleum

According to Jo Farb Hernández, after Sam died in 1932, Emilie allowed tours of the house and grounds until 1941, when she moved out of state to seek employment. The property was eventually sold for back taxes, and the house was subdivided into apartments. For many years the site remained unkempt and vines covered the sculptures. In 1967, the owners of a Lucas hardware company, Wayne and Louella Naegle, and a local banker, Rex Dewey, purchased the Garden of Eden and restored it. The Naegles later purchased Dewey’s share; through their efforts the site was listed in 1977 on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the Naegles sold the Garden of Eden to a small group of preservationists devoted to the site. In 2012, the Kohler Foundation sponsored an extensive preservation of the Garden of Eden.

The experience of touring the house, walking about the yard, and glimpsing Sam Dinsmoor’s corpse in his coffin was suitably weird. I was thinking we would head on to our hotel in Salina when Wendy spotted a sign about an art center in the tiny downtown a few blocks west. Boy howdy, we had no idea what was still to come.

Grassroots Art Center

The Grassroots Art Center​ “curates permanent and temporary exhibits of art work from over 22 self-taught, outsider, visionary yard environments from across the Midwest. Usually these artists are over 65 years of age when they begin to create and continue for 15-25 years until they die. They use all types of recycled materials such as metal, cardboard, aluminum pull tabs, wood, computer motherboards, electrical wire, and even chewing gum.”

Pull-tab art by Herman Divers

We came in the middle of a tour and were welcome. Favorites of mine included the pull-tab art of Herman Divers of Topeka, who constructed his models in the evenings after his day job. He’d work on his pull-tabs each evening until one broke to tell him it was time to quit for the day. He first made a bedspread and then a full-size automobile in his living room (with removable wheels to take it outside). A complete suit of clothing followed and a motorcycle constructed of 179,200 pull-tabs.

When pull-tabs became obsolete, Herman turned to covering objects with buttons and creating sculptural models of copper scrap and wire. We also saw many carvings of Kansas limestone by Inez Marshall, who was an auto mechanic, truck driver, and traveling evangelist. She carved in stone for five decades. There was also a fun game by John Woods where you touched a contact pen to nails beside various items to light up visual puns.

Post rock art

Outside they exhibit some steampunk pieces along with various limestone carvings and architectural forms from 1870-1920 carved from post rock limestone. One of my Kansas cousins crafted from the same material the “Meador stones” planted near the front doors of Meador Manor in Bartlesville as well as my parents’ home in Oklahoma City. This summer Wendy tackled the peeling paint on our stone, grinding away the old paint and renewing it.

The post rock stone at Meador Manor

Florence Deeble Rock Garden and House

Our delightful tour guide, who worked for the postal service to make ends meet, walked us over to Florence Deeble’s house. Florence grew up watching S.P. Dinsmoor constructing his Garden of Eden. In 1935, the schoolteacher began using postcards and drawings to help her craft miniature scenes of places she had visited or read about.  She created stone-inlaid bridges, columns, towers, altars, and cactus plants, using rocks brought back from her travels and her memories and imagination to craft her impressions of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and Lucas Lake, the view from her cabin at Estes Park, Colorado plus a Kansas Mount Rushmore, and more. She also crafted somewhat bizarre tributes to local historical figures. Florence labored on her garden for almost 50 years until she passed at age 99 in 1999.

Florence Deeble’s recreation of the view from her cabin in Estes Park

Mri-Pilar’s Garden of Isis

The front yard featured artistic conglomerations, and inlays adorned the porch. But when our guide led us inside the house, we were taken aback. Since 2002, artist Mri-Pilar has sheathed the walls and ceilings with silver insulation and covered the walls in bizarre and hilarious collages which often use doll parts. It looked like Barbie had mated with aliens. The living room featured a mannequin dominatrix and/or goddess who had enchained various Marvel character dolls on the floor. It is quite a knockout.

Goddess

Wendy and I were entranced, slowly pacing along in wonderment at the hilarious and disturbing creations. She enjoyed seeing circuit boards, something she is quite familiar with from Chromebook repairs, repurposed into folk art. The bathtub and sink were filled with dolls. We loved it! What a wonderful find in an unexpected location.

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Dazed, we were led to nearby home where a skeletal figure was sitting on the porch and a window on the side of the house afforded a glimpse of other artistic creations. But the resident kitty bounded up to the window glass to look back at us peering in, favoring us with his attention. The reflection in my shot looks like a double exposure which will help us recall our friendly guide and the wonderful grassroots art of Lucas, Kansas.

Diving into art in Lucas, KS

It was late, but when we made our way back to the museum, the docent insisted on showing us some pieces we had missed when we arrived mid-tour even though it was past closing time. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and will be back someday so we can hopefully take in the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things and other attractions. In keeping with the artwork around a telephone pole in front of the Grassroots Art Center, Lucas really made a splash!

That stop was the perfect ending to our adventure, showing how the monotonous prairie landscape can be enlivened with quirky folk art. We spent the night in Salina and then drove home to Bartlesville, all the richer because we veered off the interstate to actually see something.

Photo Gallery

< Western Loop, Days 9-10: Denver

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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